ATLANTA (AP) — Even facing its biggest deficit since November, No. 1 Florida never panicked.
The Gators know their defense will never let them down.
Swarming relentlessly in the second half, Florida rallied from 10 points down and defeated Tennessee 56-49 in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament Saturday.
Patric Young scored 16 points and Scottie Wilbekin added 14, but this victory had nothing to do with what happened at the offensive end. It was all about what Tennessee faced when it had the ball after halftime.
The Volunteers made only 5-of-20 shots with 11 turnovers, and things really got grim down the stretch as they were stifled time and time again — making just one of their last 11 attempts from the field, while turning it over five times.
Everywhere they turned, it seemed like a Florida player was waiting, ready to take a swipe at the ball.
“We didn’t really switch anything up,” Wilbekin said. “We just tried to go into an extra gear.”
Florida (31-2) extended its school-record winning streak to 25 in a row after being down 35-28 at halftime.
“This group has a resiliency and a competitiveness,” coach Billy Donovan said. “We have our faults. We’re not perfect. But I’ve never walked off the court saying, ‘Wow, these guys didn’t get after it, they didn’t compete.'”
Tennessee (21-12) had a chance to post its most impressive win of the season. Now, its postseason fate rests in the hands of the NCAA selection committee.
The Gators, improving to 20-0 against SEC opponents, advanced to face Kentucky or Georgia in the championship game Sunday.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams. I’ve watched a lot of teams from afar,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country.”
Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 15 points, while Jarnell Stokes had 13 points and seven rebounds.
The final minutes were marred by a number of questionable calls, including a technical on Tennessee’s Jeronne Maymon for disputing that he threw a shoulder. It was the fifth foul on Maymon, knocking him out of the game with more than 4 1-2 minutes remaining after he scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Then with just over a minute left, there was a long break while the officials went to the replay to rule on a potential flagrant foul against Wilbekin, even though it wasn’t even clear if he touched a Tennessee player while swinging his arms high.
“I think my elbow nicked his chin a little bit,” Wilbekin said with a slight grin. “He did a good job of selling it.”
It didn’t matter at the end. The Gators defeated Tennessee for the third time this season, each one following the same plot line. The Vols held their own in the first half, only to get dominated by Florida in the second.
The cumulative second-half score in the three games was Florida 103, Tennessee 60 — including a 28-14 edge on Saturday.
Despite the loss, the Vols are confident of their NCAA chances based on one of the nation’s toughest schedules and an RPI in the low 40s.
“I feel like the statement was already made before coming into this game,” Stokes said.
In the first half, at least, Tennessee certainly looked worthy of a spot in the 68-team field. The Vols were the first team to lead Florida by double digits since the first of its two losses, at Wisconsin on Nov. 12.
Wilbekin cut the deficit to seven at halftime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Florida still went to the locker room facing its second-biggest deficit of the season at the midway point. Not that the Gators were ruffled by being in that position — it was the eighth time they had trailed at the break, and they’ve now come back to win six in a row.
“I told the guys at halftime, ‘We’ve been in this situation before,'” Wilbekin said. “We know what it takes to win in the second half.”
Tennessee should know. The Vols stayed right with Florida before halftime in both regular-season meetings, only to get blown out 67-41 in Gainesville and fall 67-58 in Knoxville.
Wilbekin, Florida’s senior leader, didn’t have his usual stellar game though he did go 3 of 7 from 3-point range. He was definitely off in the first half, throwing up an airball on an off-balance shot from the baseline and barely grazing the rim with another attempt.
But his defense was there all the way.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963